Outside Guantanamo's prisons, 'it's really a biologist's dream'

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL STATION -- When most people think of the American base at Guantanamo Bay, they think of the nine controversial detention camps that house prisoners of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But for the service members, contractors and families who live here, the base has another, perhaps even more prominent feature: its wildlife.

On a sunny day, it's difficult to drive a mile on base without passing a giant, prehistoric-looking rock iguana sunning itself on a road or beach. And a conversation between two base residents at the Tiki Bar is as likely to be about the hutia -- a porcupine-like mammal that lives in trees and cactuses -- that got into someone's house as it is to be about 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

"There's no other place like this," said Chief Petty Officer Andrew Meyer, who works for the detention centers' computer support team. "We've had a Cuban boa up in the rafters and a tarantella in the office."

The animals are not just catching the attention of the base residents. Among environmental researchers, Guantanamo Bay Naval Station is building a reputation as an ideal place to study rare and threatened species indigenous to Cuba and the Caribbean region.


The dry habitats that dominate the base's arid landscapes are imperiled throughout much of the Caribbean but are protected on the base by Pentagon policy and a team of environmental managers employed by the Navy. So, too, are the clear waters off the base's coasts, which are home to four species of threatened or endangered sea turtles and some of the most pristine coral in the region.

"Military installations -- in the states, too -- are almost islands of diversity for species and habitat," said Mike McCord, environmental director at Guantanamo Bay Naval Station. "A lot of endangered species are found on military installations and nowhere else."

McCord gets so many requests from researchers that he sometimes has to turn them down. Many scientists call him because they have had trouble getting permission from the Cuban government to do research on the other side of the fence.

Others are drawn to Gitmo because some species that are struggling elsewhere are flourishing on the base.

On a clear, dry day in April, Peter Tolson was trudging through the tall grasses behind a bleak, gray building where detention camp staff live four to a unit. In his hands, the Toledo Zoo herpetologist carried headphones and radio-tracking equipment.

The grasses gave way to a subtropical dry forest, dotted with endangered Mahogany trees and worn soda bottles from the 1950s. Then, when the forest opened up to a grassy hill with an abandoned Cold War-era bunker built into its side, Tolson's pace quickened.

Inside the dark, cool bunker was a female boa that Tolson has been tracking for years, charting how frequently she reproduces, whether factors like drought affect her timing, and how many offspring are born from each litter. It is crucial data for a species that is listed as near-threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

"We're really interested in the reproductive effort that females put into a litter and how often they do it. In captivity, these gals will have litters every other year like clockwork, but here it's more like every third year," Tolson said.

"Being able to do this work here is vital," Tolson said. "These are vast tracts of land that are not visited. People don't hunt on them, they don't fish on them, they don't persecute the animals. It's really a biologist's dream."

Supporting the mission through environmental protection

The military's professional environmental managers -- often trained conservation scientists -- will be the first to say that they are there for one reason and one reason alone: Managing natural resources makes the military better at its mission.

Commanders want to train their units on land that looks and feels like the land they might be fighting on. They don't want to practice on a landscape crowded with dry, fire-prone invasive brush if that is not what they would find on the battlefield.

Nor do they want to rehearse on ground scarred by ruts, formed because unit after unit has trained there without stop. Approaching a fresh, natural piece of land requires service members to strategize -- to see the landscape and determine the best way forward -- rather than simply following in the tracks their predecessors trod.

"We use our installations and our lands to train, to maintain readiness for our military personnel, and when we do that, we want our training to be as realistic as possible, which means we want to operate in the natural existing environments," said Wayne Blodgett, environmental director for the command that oversees the Navy's installations. "Preserving those environments is an important part of being able to train realistically, and therefore is an important part of our mission."

Guantanamo Bay Naval Station's commanding officer, Capt. Kirk Hibbert, said this was the key to capturing his attention.

On the global scale, Hibbert is closely watching environmental conditions in the Arctic, where melting sea ice is opening up new shipping lanes and turning the region into a potential hot spot for conflicts over newly accessible oil, gas and mineral resources.

"I can draw a straight line between the protections we put in place at Gitmo for our land and animals, and the Navy's ability to manage sea lanes in the changing Arctic," he said. "When these [environmental] issues come across my desk, I don't really think about it as a law or regulation, I think about it as the right thing to do."

But just in case other commanders do not see it the way Hibbert does, there are serious laws on the books.

Domestically, DOD is required to follow the same environmental rules that all federal agencies are bound by, including the Endangered Species Act. And the Sikes Act, which first connected natural resource management on the department's 30 million acres of land with the military mission, also holds commanders criminally culpable if they fail to enact environmental measures. The provision, dubbed "stars behind bars" by Pentagon insiders at the time, gave the law teeth among military brass.

Now, each base must have a detailed environmental management plan in place. Teams keep careful counts of protected species on DOD property, survey land before units train on it and rotate the fields where exercises are held so that troops are not in areas where sensitive species are breeding or nesting.

Protecting Gitmo's rare animals

On a bright day last month, Tolson and his assistant, conservation biologist Candee Ellsworth, were slowly walking along a cliff above one of the base's beaches, where the land meets the clear blue Caribbean Sea. Every few minutes, one of them would freeze and signal to the other to approach, silently, and peer under a bush or around a cactus in search of a rock iguana.

The pair was doing a population survey, walking a line that had been randomly chosen and measuring where and how many iguanas they saw. Later, they would plug the data into a computer model that would tell them how dense the iguana population is in different habitats around the base.

The project is being funded by the Navy, which supported a similar study 10 years ago, according to McCord. This sort of work helps the base's environmental team know whether the steps they have taken to protect a species are working.

Those steps include a 25-mph speed limit around most of the base, which helps drivers see and avoid animals that often sun on the road, as well as an environmental training session that all service members must go through when they arrive on base.

Natural resource managers have also worked to remove nonnative species, especially those that prey on the island's protected animals, which did not evolve to have defenses against dogs, goats or feral cats.

And the base has several restricted areas, both on land and off the coast, and other areas where vehicles are not allowed.

Gitmo's land and water perimeters have to be watched and kept secure, but in the areas where endangered sea turtles nest, the environmental team has swapped out the normal bright white lights for less intrusive amber ones. They also work to direct the lights away from nests so the turtles don't get confused when they hatch, McCord said.

Protections in place for the Cuban subspecies of the hutia have worked so well, the animal is flourishing at Guantanamo Bay at a time when the species is endangered in most other Caribbean regions. In fact, to keep the hutia in balance with the rest of the ecosystem, base staff have now organized a population control program.

Separate plans for separate sides of the fence

On most overseas bases, American environmental staff collaborates with the local government to create a natural resources plan.

"Our policy is to compare host nation environmental law with U.S. environmental law, and adopt the more protective standard," Jackalyne Pfannenstiel, the Navy's assistant secretary for energy, environment and installations, said in an email.

But because the United States does not have diplomatic relations with Cuba, Guantanamo Bay's environmental staff has had to develop the base's plans without full knowledge of what is happening off base.

In some cases, it is clear that U.S. protections surpass those on the Cuban side of the fence. For instance, according to Tolson, research indicates that as much as 8 percent of Cuba's population of rock iguanas lives on the base -- a striking amount, given the base's small footprint.

But knowing how a species is faring on the other side of the fence line would be helpful, McCord said, since species migrate between the U.S. base and Cuban territory.

While such a collaboration has not happened yet, for 15 years the two governments have been holding a monthly meeting between the commanding officer of the U.S. naval station and a Cuban military counterpart along the fence line. Environmental issues such as natural disaster response plans are a frequent topic of conversation, according to naval station spokesman Terence Peck, and have even led to bilateral exercises where U.S. and Cuban members of the military practice emergency response together.

When she was Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Environmental Security during the Clinton administration, Sherri Goodman orchestrated programs like the U.S.-Cuba disaster response exercises around the world.

"Again and again, we found that countries who don't talk to each other about anything else talk to each other about environmental issues and natural disasters," Goodman said last year. "Just look at India and Pakistan. One of the few treaties they have on the books is about water."

McCord said such decisions about U.S.-Cuba relations are above his pay grade, "but from an environmental standpoint, it sure would be interesting to talk with them about what they're doing."

The evolutionary risk of being big

One of the most significant differences between animals on the U.S. base and those in the rest of Cuba is size, according to Tolson.

In many Caribbean cultures, snakes -- especially large snakes -- are feared and often killed. Moreover, in Cuba both snakes and lizards are eaten for protein, especially during times of economic hardship. In both cases, larger animals tend to be targeted.

"When you're concentrating on getting the biggest animals in the population, what you're going to do is shift the reproductive size of the population to having smaller and smaller animals reproduce," Tolson said. "In those cases, there can be a real big pressure against being large, and apparently that's what's happened in Cuba."

Whereas historical accounts from the late 19th century suggest Cuban boas could reach nearly 20 feet long, Tolson said, today the largest boa he knows of on base is 15 feet 11 inches. In Cuba, according to Tolson, anything above 10 feet in length is considered large.

Those size disparities can have a significant impact on reproduction, Tolson said. The smaller the animal, the smaller the clutch size. And since Cuban boas can live for up to 40 years and rock iguanas upward of 50, a reduced clutch size over a single animal's life can make a real dent in the species' population.

But Tolson said there actually is not much good data for Cuban boa, especially ones living under healthy conditions in the wild. For that reason, the research he is doing at Guantanamo Bay is especially valuable.

"I have the opportunity to collect data on a population that is doing well, without all these kinds of pressures threatening it," he said. "That really makes the integrity of your data a lot higher. It's a totally different situation when you're studying an animal that's really close to going down the tubes."

Spreading the passion

Children, parents, sailors and contractors squeezed under a tent at Guantanamo Bay's ferry landing last month to catch a glimpse of some of the base's wild creatures.

Each year, Tolson makes a point of holding an educational show for the base's residents. Preparing for the show takes two days of running around, crawling through the base's nursery in the afternoon heat and hunting for animals by headlamp in a ravine at night, and it means precious time away from his research. But Tolson is committed to the project, in part because it was during his time serving as an enlisted Marine at Guantanamo Bay that he first fell in love with the region's animals.

During the late 1960s, Tolson radioed coordinates in for pilots doing target practice in the base's fields. During his lunch breaks, the 21-year-old Marine would head over to an abandoned fort left over from the Spanish-American War because it was a great spot to see snakes, bats and iguanas.

Tolson became hooked on the animals, and after his tour ended he went to college on the G.I. bill. Now, he tries to spark a similar passion in service members and their families living on base.

McCord's career, too, was set thanks to a youth spent at the naval station. His father was a sailor and McCord lived at Guantanamo Bay for 11 years of his childhood, exploring the base's hills, beaches and tidal pools so thoroughly that by high school, he was pointing things out to his teachers.

"When I think about what I learned here in Gitmo in the time that I was here -- it really shaped my future," McCord said. "I probably wouldn't be sitting at this desk if it wasn't for what I learned here at Gitmo."

In his time as the base's environmental director, McCord, too, has put an emphasis on education. He asks each researcher that comes through to give a presentation at the school, and his office hosts high school students thinking about careers in environmental science.

"Not everyone can say, I was out counting sea turtles before school, or doing a field survey on an indigenous rodent," he said. "Most kids just don't have those opportunities elsewhere."

McCord makes a point of offering those opportunities, in hopes that one day one of those students may end up at his desk, finding ways of supporting the military's mission through environmental protections.

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